Light Perpetual

The light is grey and sullen, a smoulder, a flare choking on the soot of its own burning, and leaking only a little of its power into the visible spectrum.

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford, Faber 2021

Sounds pretty dystopian, doesn’t it?

What if four children – who died in a WW2 bombardment – didn’t? The children aren’t extraordinary, they’re simply ‘allowed to’ play out their lives. What follows are slices of life of post-war England.

The characters make the novel, especially when the writing lacks a bit. It’s a history novel as history should be looked at: through the eyes of regular humans.

Bolla

Having made the world, God began to regret his creation.

Bolla, Pajtim Statovci, Pantheon Books 2021

Delivered on its promise of being “Brokeback Mountain in Eastern Europe”. Except there’s no cowboys, and an even larger divide because of war going on, so throw in some Romeo & Juliet in there as well.

Arsim, Albanian, married falls for Milos (single, Serb) in nineties Kosovo. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, both his wife’s pregnancy and the regional war follow soon.

Bolla is a small story – less than two hundred pages – yet somehow manages to make this romance very intimate and a window to look through at the (developing) war. War is people, war is ideas but it’s also societies that just try to keep moving on, staying upright. But love needs more than ‘staying upright’ and Statovci shows it full of ache and longing. Neither characters make good/great decisions, but do they have any other options?

Not something you’d call a nice read, but definitely a good one.

This Lovely City

The basement club spat Lawrie out into the dirty maze of Soho, a freezing mist settling over him like a damp jacket.

The pretty cover will definitely throw you off: this isn’t a light, bubbly story about a fabulous time in black music history. This is a novel about black British history, and there’s little prettiness about that.

Jamaicans are ‘invited’ to come to the motherland, but England isn’t a loving mother. Black people are denied on every level of daily living, and when a baby is found, police and white citizens take it as an excuse to go full out racist.

Louise Hare shows the endless fear and frustration as well, making you move from ‘Why not just go back?’ to ‘Why don’t you stand up for yourself?’ and ‘Why is everybody such a wanker?’. Lawrie doesn’t want much in life, but because he’s black there’s a lot of people out there that actively sabotage him.

The Empire Windrush and their people aren’t fiction, nor was their treatment of them. So even though this is an interesting look at London after the Second World War, there’s no fun and bubbles to be found here.

This Lovely City, Louise Hare, House of Anansi Press 2020

The Secrets We Kept

We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable.

While I’m absolutely lukewarm about stories that use the World Wars as their background, the Cold War or anything involving the USSR/Russia has easily my interest (peeked). The Secrets We Kept ads love for literature to that. Ace in the hole, you’d say.

I can’t pinpoint why it isn’t one. It’s an appealing, enticing story; easy to read, pretty easy to follow (several chapters keep you in the dark about who’s the protagonist now — at least for a page and a half) and voices could have differed a bit more from each other. But that’s details I discover looking back, not necessarily crippling me during reading the story.

The secrets kept the title mentioned are from both The Agency (American security) as from Russian individuals that dare do things The State doesn’t agree with. Of course, there’s secrets on other levels as well, and this isn’t  a Cold War story in the way of ‘pick a side and follow through’. These women and typists carry more responsibility than their detailed-described looks entail.

It’s a fun novel to read, easily calling up images and with no frills when not necessary. I’m honestly surprised that I’m not more excited about it.

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, Bond Street Books 2019

Pachinko

History has failed us, but no matter.

Yes, a much better start for the new reading year than Acceptance. Much better than any recent books, and it’s January 24th. Anyway, Pachinko was lauded and I’m glad it didn’t disappoint me.

It’s a family epic of a Korean family, starting in 1910. Generation after generation takes you past living in poverty, living in a colonised country, war, prosperity and loss. There’s born family and created family and all the other connections that happen in society.

Sounds terribly vague? Simply because this is a book you should allow to overwhelm you, instead of going in with any expectations. “Meh”, you think, “a soap opera spread through time”, but that’s an insult. Pachinko is history, humanity, entertainment and mind boggling (the things I didn’t know as a white woman). Oh, and the descriptions of food might make you drool a little.

Pachinko is nominated for the American award ‘National Book Award for Fiction’. It has my vote.

Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, Hachette Book Group 2017

The Collaborator

Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’

I really wanted to like this. Looking back a few days later, I appreciate the story and the story telling, but while reading it, it couldn’t hold my focus.

The story is about the nineties war in Kashmir, and the young man left behind to take care of the remains. Literally. Where others have left to fight (for India/against India), the headman’s son has the job of taking identity cards from dead bodies. He feels left behind, he feels like a failure, he lives in less than a ghost town.

So what was it that didn’t click with me? Maybe the endless dreariness, the weight of everything going on. It’s not like the prose is dull, uninspired or repetitive, but it does push you into the tightening corner of the main character’s despair.
Maybe I simply read it after the wrong book, maybe I just couldn’t handle the story.

The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed, Viking 2011

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

In a single year, my father left us twice.

This was work. I don’t know how I managed to read two similarly build up novels (the other one being Disappearing Moon Cafe), but this one was the tougher of the two. Maybe because the comparison material was so recent. Both left me wondering how I’d like something contemporary written by an Asian actor.

Anyway, time moves every way but chronologically in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Keep your head with you, because there’s a lot of characters going through a lot of things. The most brutal one, probably Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ and the horrors of Tiananmen Square.

These aren’t light, bright stories. There seems to be no end to what a family can be put through, and the small, mythology-like side steps only make the difference starker. How did anyone come out alive?

It’s a novel to take in in small doses, to learn and see through another set of goggles.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien, Granta 2016

Preparation for the Next Life

She came by way of Archer, Bridgeport, Nanuet, worked off 95 in jeans and a denim jacket, carrying a plastic bag and shower shoes, a phone number, waiting beneath an underpass, the potato chips long gone.

It took me four days after finishing this before I felt like I could shape an opinion about this story. At first I was just hugely relieved that I was done.

This novel is closer to a news bulletin, a history story or a sociological essay. This isn’t entertainment or escape, it’s too brutal and slogging, the number of light and happy moments much too little.

So why would you? How many people pick a book that will darken their day considerably? As with non-fiction: to know. To remember that there is a world outside the familiar one. And in Zou’s path there can be find a little spark of motivation, while Skinner’s fall just shows the urgency of supporting veterans mentally. With my previous reads of De Gele Vogels and Terug naar normaal this month’s themes turn out to be mental health and war.

I agree with other reviews that the addition of a certain character is unnecessary, and his chapters could be skipped. They just add more violence, despair, and lack of reasons for existence.

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish, OneWorld 2014

Across The Universe

133 min.

The number of musical movies I like could be counted on one hand, but sometimes other people’s enthusiasm overrides habit. I had the day off and nowhere to go (why is everything closed on Good Friday?) so why not try this?

ATU poster sony pictures‘This’ is Across The Universe, a musical with The Beatles songs against a backdrop of the Vietnam war and protests. There’s Jude who leaves Liverpool for a better life (in the USA), there’s Lucy who learns more about the world in one summer than her years at school. Connecting factor is Max (her brother, his friend) and a selection of colourful characters that have their own message for that time and over that subject.

The soundtrack makes things very easy to like, but the main three characters add bundles of chemistry and appeal as well, making the entire package bright and enjoyable. Yes, I’m an ATU enthusiast now as well. The movie can be found on (Canadian) Netflix.

Across The Universe, Sony Pictures 2007

Eleven Days

The United States Navy SEALs came out of the Teams that served in Vietnam; they in turn came out of the Navy Seabees, the Scouts and Raiders, and the Underwater Demolition Teams used during World War II.

‘What happens to those that are left behind?’ is regularly asked when military families are the subject. In case of Eleven Days, the question applies to both sides. It’s not only the mother getting left behind by her son and his father, it’s the son being left behind by her, his father, and the possibilities of ordinary life.

Sara and Jason aren’t a conventional mother and son and their relationship is similar. That doesn’t mean that when she gets the news of him being missed, she deals with it any differently than anyone missing a loved one. This mother just has a large safety net made by neighbors, military men and her son’s godfathers to catch her.

The novel tells not only Sara’s story, but also Jason’s. His need to become a part of the American army, his silent suffering because he never knew his father, the feelings of finally belonging somewhere when he finds his place in his team. Him ending up missing is almost a side plot, this is about war and peace, wrong and right, family you’re born with and family you create yourself.

It’s not a happy story, and it takes a bit of work to get through it, but if you want to ponder these subjects, I’d tell you to give this a chance.

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter, Alfred A. Knopf 2013